Many organisations claim they rely on well-educated, reflective people who are eager to learn.
A few years ago, both of us were invited to an official dinner. We found a place at a table together, sat down and started to catch up. One of us described how his student had recently been doing an internship with a powerful government department.
Over the period of three months, the student had to help write a report. This was not the kind of report that would be shelved at once and read by noÂ one. This report would set out an entirely new policy area for the government.Â You might think this wasÂ a difficult job requiring a team of very experienced people doing in-depth research. Apparently not. The student worked largely on her own. Her manager was in his 20s.
When she asked him what was the most important aspect of developing a really good report, he replied: One or two impressive PowerPoint slides.
This struck both of us as really stupid. How could an important new government policy that would affect millions of people be based on a few PowerPoint slides created by an intern who was managed by a twenty-something?
Was this just a one-off case of stupidity, we asked, and began to swap stories from the dozens of organisations we have studied over the years. We talked about top executives who rely on consultants’ PowerPoint shows rather than careful analysis, headmasters and teachers who spend their time enthusiastically talking about vague but positive organisational values rather than educating students, managers who try to be inspiring leaders even though their subordinates are not interested and are capable of working on their own, senior figures in the armed forces who prefer to run rebranding exercises rather than military exercises, engineers who overlook fatal flaws, IT analysts who prefer to ignore problems so as not to undermine the upbeat tone of their workplace, senior executives who keep on launching programmes for change yet have no serious interest in the outcome…
When we came to the topic of universities, we realised there were just too many kinds of stupidity to mention: pointless rebranding exercises, ritualistic box-ticking, thoughtless pursuit of rankings, to mention just a few.
As we piled up all these examples, we started to realise that something was very wrong here. We are constantly told that to be competitive we must be smart. We should be knowledge workers employed by knowledge-intensive firms that trade in the knowledge economy. Our governments spend billions on trying to create knowledge economies, our firms brag about their superior intelligence, and individuals spend decades of their lives building up fine CVs.
Yet all this collective intellect does not seem to be reflected in the many organisations we studied. Much of what goes on in these organisations was described — often by employees themselves — as being stupid.
Far from being “knowledge-intensive”, many of our most well-known chief organisations have become engines of stupidity. We have frequently seen otherwise smart people stop thinking and start doing stupid things. They stop asking questions. They give no reasons for their decisions. They pay no heed to what their actions cause.
Instead of complex thought we get flimsy jargon, aggressive assertions or expert tunnel vision. Reflection, careful analysis and independent reflection decay. Idiotic ideas and practices are accepted as quite sane. People may harbour doubts, but their suspicions are cut short. What’s more, they are rewarded for it.
But one thing puzzled us: why was it that organisations which employed so many smart people could foster so much stupidity? After some discussion, we realised something: smart organisations and the smart people who work in them often do stupid things because they work — at least in the short term.
By avoiding careful thinking, people are able to simply get on with their job. Asking too many questions is likely to upset others — and to distract yourself. Not thinking frees you up to fit in and get along. Sometimes it makes sense to be stupid. Perhaps we live in an age where a certain type of stupidity has triumphed.
But that was not the end of the story. As we talked more, we realised that while being stupid might work in the short term, it could lead to bigger problems in the long term. When people buy into baseless ideas it can create a nice feeling today, but lay traps for tomorrow.
Our realisations during that dinner — that smart organisations encourage stupidity, that this pays off in the short term, but creates problems in the long term — led us to write our book. Welcome to the paradox of functional stupidity.
The allure of the knowledge worker
Knowledge, learning, talent, wisdom, innovation, creativity: these words are all too common in business-school textbooks, consultants’ reports and politicians’ speeches. Organisations abound with “chief knowledge officers”, “cognitive engineers”, “data alchemists” and “innovation sherpas”.
To find a place in this knowledge-intensive world, young people are advised to build their intellectual capital through years of more and more expensive education and a dizzying array of new experiences. Undergraduates now have CVs that boast of building wells in Ugandan villages (“entrepreneurship”), working in a cafÃ© in Brooklyn (“service management”), making photocopies in London investment banks (“analysis”), and teaching children to ski in the Canadian Rockies (“leadership”).
They hope this wide array of unrelated experience will win them a place in the supposedly lucrative “creative class”.
This is of course a wonderfully elastic and seductive term which includes 30 per cent of the population in countries like the US. Everyone from teachers to engineers fits in. The fantasy image of the knowledge worker is of a smart and amply rewarded free agent hanging out in an inner-city cafÃ© and pushing their intellect to the limit.
The reality is more likely to be someone working on a short-term contract in a data centre situated in an office park at the edge of a motorway.
If asked (which is unlikely), they may well describe their job as dumb.
Nation states sink millions into building “knowledge clusters”, “science parks”, “innovation zones”, “talent corridors” and “smart cities” and most countries in the world have attempted to create their own “unique” version of Silicon Valley. There is Silicon Alley (New York), Silicon Lagoon (Nigeria), Silicon Island (Japan), Silicon Oasis (Dubai) and Silicon Roundabout (UK).
This widespread zeal for smartness seems to be based on one single message: that the fate of our organisations, economy and working life hinges on our ability to be smart. Knowledge and intelligence are thought to be the key resources.
But it is time to question much of the hype.
Smart, but not clever
We think that most apparently knowledge-intensive organisations can be pretty stupid. Far from running a knowledge-based economy, most developed nations utilise most of their people to do low level service work.
Even if you possess some intellectual capital in the form of a university degree, there is a high likelihood you will end up working in a job that only really requires high-school qualifications. (But in order to get there you need the credentials first.)
If you scratch the shiny surface of almost any organisation claiming to be knowledge-intensive, you will find a quite different reality. Sure, there are often many well-educated smart people, but there is often little evidence that most of the corporate intelligentsia are fully using their intellect.
Sometimes this is because many knowledge-intensive firms are packed with clever people working in jobs that are routine and uncomplicated. Think about your average market-research company. These knowledge-intensive firms typically hire well-mannered young people with decent degrees to do two things: call people while they are eating dinner to ask inane questions, or crunch the data that these phone calls yield.
Small wonder that one call-centre operative described the job as “an assembly line in the head”.
Even when people do find themselves in a context where there is some scope to exercise their intellect, they often seem to avoid this. A recent study by psychologists at the University of Virginia found that over half of the people they tested would rather give themselves electric shocks than sit and just think for between sixÂ and 11 minutes.
This abhorrence of independent thinking is also common in the workplace. Managers often avoid having to think for themselves by becoming over-enthusiastic about showy ideas. For instance, following the financial crisis, senior executives at a large global bank started getting interested in “authentic leadership”. They thought that by reconnecting with their “inner values”, it was possible to become more ethical and to increase their performance at the same time.
The bank decided to send all its senior managers on training courses that would help them to locate their inner values. While this may have looked good on paper, many participants found the exercise to be either invasive, a waste of time, or both.
But what is so striking is not just that bright people buy into stupid ideas. The real surprise is that by buying into these ideas, they can help organisations to function well and aid individuals in building their career.
Baseless ideas can help organisations and the individuals working in them to look and feel good. By going along to an ethical training course, a senior banker will probably not change their values, but they might end up feeling a little bit better about themselves.
In addition, people can be rewarded for having the right appearance, the right beliefs and the right attitudes. For instance, individuals who resisted going on the ethical training course were seen as being deviants who did not comply with the new more righteous tone at the bank.
Indeed, the bank as a whole probably benefited from such training courses. It could show the media, politicians and the regulators that it was doing something (irrespective of how efficient or effective it was). It sent out a positive message to potential employees. Maybe it made existing employees more committed to the firm.
What was much less certain was whether it actually achieved the putative aims. In many ways, this was completely incidental.
Functional stupidity at work
To understand why smart people buy into stupid ideas, and often get rewarded for doing so, we need to look at the role that functional stupidity plays. Functional stupidity is the inclination to reduce one’s scope of thinking and focus only on the narrow, technical aspects of the job. Â You do the job correctly, but without reflecting on purpose or the wider context; you avoid thinking too much about exactly what you are doing, why you are doing it, and its potential implications.
By following this tried and true recipe, you hope to avoid punishments and many worries that might come from deviation. You sidestep the burdens of having to think too much and upsetting others by asking difficult questions.
Organisations encourage functional stupidity in many ways. Some have cultures that emphasise being action-oriented. “Just do it” is no longer a catchy marketing slogan: it has become standard marching orders for the corporate nincompoop.
As Michael Foley puts it in The Age of Absurdity: “It is only our own impatient, greedy age that demands to be told how to live in a set of short bullet points.”
Companies routinely talk about their brand as what makes them different, but if you take a careful look it seems to be the same as in other companies. Firms often go out of their way to copy other organisations they think are successful, but often they have little or no idea of why they are copying them.
When people are obsessed with buying into success recipes and taking action, for instance, they are relieved of the burden of actually having to consider the tacit assumptions they act on, and the implications of their actions.
A decline in innovation
Many organisations claim they rely on well-educated, reflective, bright people who are eager to learn. The sad reality is that they actually rely even more on almost the opposite: discipline, order, mindless enthusiasm, conformity, loyalty and a willingness to be seduced by the most ludicrous of ideas.
All the talk about the knowledge economy has generated a new dogma. Today it is conventional wisdom that “the foundation of industrial economies has shifted from natural resources to intellectual assets” as a 1999 article in the Harvard Business Review put it. Instead of industrial workers who produce material goods, we now have knowledge workers who create “immaterial products such as knowledge, communication, a relationship or an emotional response” according to the book Multitude: War and Democracy in the Age of Empire by Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri.
The articles of faith are that we live in a knowledge economy dominated by knowledge-intensive firms which employ knowledge workers.
Nations around the world have invested heavily in innovation by raising participation in higher education, boosting the amount of scientific research they produce and extending access to information and communication technology. Worthy activities for sure, but in some cases these investments have backfired: more people attend university, but students appear to learn less; more research papers are produced, but fewer fundamental breakthroughs are made. The great spread of ICT has often just given users access to pictures of cats and celebrity gossip.
Perhaps it should not be so surprising that some have started to point out that far from experiencing a boom in innovation, we are actually witnessing declines.
Many fundamental innovations happened during the middle of the 20th century, but since the 1970s we have actually seen a fall in the number of breakthroughs that fuel economic growth. The important innovations we have witnessed — such as the internet — were largely based on fundamental technologies developed earlier in the century. When innovation does happen today, it happens more slowly. The design and development of the first Boeing 747 (a radically new type of aircraft at the time) took five years. The design and development of the first Airbus A380 (a modest evolution) took 15 years.
This should lead us to ask whether spending on the knowledge economy was more about public relations than producing innovation. Perhaps all this talk about knowledge is a way of creating an appealing image of an economy going places in order to avoid discussing the darker prospects that haunt de-industrialising countries around the world.
The knowledge-intensive firm
While countries have tried to become “knowledge economies”, companies have sought to become “knowledge-intensive firms”. Often though, the solutions offered by such firms — accountants, consultancies, lawyers, communications experts, IT —Â are little more than placebos. Often it amounts to little more than a feeling among senior managers that something has been done, and a sense of relief among middle managers that they are off the hook.
Being a knowledge-intensive firm has very little to do with being knowledgeable. The real work of such a firm is to persuade the client that it is smart. That can earn big pay-offs. A sense of community among members of the firm. To belong to a knowledge-intensive firm is much more appealing than being part of an average firm operating in “the old economy”. Wielding the K word can turn a boring job filling in spreadsheets into a much smarter-sounding career in “data analysis”.
Knowledge-intensiveness can also foster an excellent external image of the company. If a firm is seen as having particular expertise, then it can help to convince clients that the often hefty price tag it charges is worth paying.
Firms are much more likely to be willing to fork out big sums of money for deep expertise, cutting-edge knowledge, or thought leadership rather than plain old advice.
Decision-makers and even the wider public accept the conclusions because the prestigious firm that produced it is thought to employ the best and the brightest. The reality is likely to be different: these same reports are usually produced by a handful of junior staff who have been working on the task for a matter of months. Senior people are always involved, but they are often busy selling services and interacting with clients. Their involvement in hands-on work is typically modest.
The advice produced is usually presented as an authoritative final answer, but behind the scenes, knowledge workers themselves are often very uncertain. Knowledge workers might share their misgivings over a beer with their peers, but they are unlikely to admit to their client that they don’t know what they are doing or why they are doing it.
A war against stupidity
The literary theorist Avital Ronell has argued that the growing stress on mastering the world through intelligence prompts a widespread paranoia about avoiding stupidity. We are locked in a desperate quest to show that we are not stupid. We do this by signalling our knowledge and intelligence. We want to show everyone that we know. Not necessarily with hard work to cultivate our knowledge and intellect — that is difficult and demanding. Instead, we chase after various signs of being educated, knowledgeable and intelligent.
But this war against stupidity can backfire. A fetishistic interest in knowledge and intelligence can in some cases drive ignorance and poor judgment. Decades of research by psychologist Carol Dweck shows that when people are afraid of looking stupid they tend to miss opportunities to learn.
Intelligence and reason are often discarded when some start to wax lyrical about the knowledge society. All the talk of the knowledge economy, knowledge work and knowledge-intensive firms can be seen as mantras being chanted in the quest to dispel the suspicion that stupidity remains a central part of life even in the most enlightened organisation.
Some, such as the French philosopher Bernard Stiegler, even suggest that matters may have got worse and that we could be entering into a new age of stupidity.
Although there is some growth of knowledge-intensive organisations using highly specialised knowledge, we have largely observed firms doing routine things but posing as if their roles were much more complex. Contemporary Western societies are full of grade, credit and title inflation.
No one would claim that knowledge is unimportant of course. Formal and symbolic knowledge probably matters more than ever. The problem is that the knowledge economy is more about alluring promise than hard realities.
There is a gap for instance, between the expansion of formal education and the facts of working life. The demand for employees with college-level education has not matched the rise in the numbers of adults attending colleges. The result is more would-be knowledge workers and more frustration.
The only solution that companies seem to have come up with is this: convince your employees that they are knowledge workers employed by a knowledge-intensive firm that competes in the knowledge-economy — even when they are not. It offers employees the glow of being smart and at least occasionally doing smart things — even if they are not.
Fachidioten. Or professional idiots
While the great majority of people in the knowledge economy do routine work, the past three decades have seen an explosion of experts on almost every imaginable issue, from different sub-diseases and parts of the human body to all aspects of human life, from diversity management to sexual therapy.
These experts are often given lots of autonomy within boundaries, yet they are marooned in a very narrow universe. They may do their particular job well, but they do it without much heed to the broader issues. As they pour all their intellectual energy into specialised work, they can become what Germans call Fachidioten — roughly, professional idiots. They know a lot about a specific issue, but are clueless beyond their very narrow domain.
But by claiming a narrow sub-discipline, you can exude an aura of technical expertise. This can give the would-be specialist a sense of power, status, and self-confidence. It can also have the lucrative side effect of helping them carve out and defend what can often be very lucrative market niches with few competitors.
Innovation gains from a broader outlook though, an ability to see potential connections between different subfields, the capacity to question certain assumptions and to think differently. Most problems are not isolated.
Having many experts each working away on their own little aspect of a wider problem can create many unforeseen problems too. Organisations can find themselves expanding because there are more experts employed. Inevitably these experts will start to develop plans, procedures, rules, routines and activities and demand compliance from everybody else. The result is often to multiply bureaucracy, with an organisation’s core work suffering as people are forced to spend time responding to the experts’ demands.
Happy days always here
All organisational cultures are to some extent unique. However there are themes that many of the organisations we have looked at share. One of these is optimism. This is the idea that you should always look on the bright side and do your best to be upbeat. You do this by encouraging an unbroken stream of upbeat messages. Crucially, negative stories and news should be avoided.
One thing executives are frequently very optimistic about is change. Every new management fashion offers an opportunity for ever more change. When organisations become fashion victims, they start too many projects — many of which are dropped too soon or performed with too little enthusiasm. The results are often cynicism and time-wasting. People start to secretly harbour negative expectations from the outset. This tends to make change more difficult next time. If it happens too often, organisations can get stuck in what Columbia Business School’s Eric Abrahamson has called the “repetitive change syndrome”.
A hi-tech company that one of us studied had a serious case of repetitive change syndrome. The firm was undertaking a cultural change project. It started with optimistic ideas about promoting a customer orientation, developing visible leadership and facilitating teamwork.
All units in the firm ran workshops to discuss these issues. After the workshop, they reported what they had done. Then nothing happened. Top management believed all the units were feeling inspired and had continued to work on these themes. Middle managers expected that top management were driving the initiative and waited for new instructions. Everyone assumed that someone else was the change agent. People in the company didn’t know about this collective myopia.
We only uncovered it because we spoke with people across the company. As we were outsiders, employees would often admit to things they would not tell to colleagues or superiors. Armed with this new-found knowledge, we spoke with two senior managers in the company who were involved with the project.
It quickly became clear that they did not want to hear bad news. They started out by saying that they were eager to hear about our findings. Then they added that they understood the change programme had been broadly seen as a success. We told them this was far from being true: the response to their change project was overwhelmingly passive and/or negative. People thought it was based on good ideas but they were frustrated that nothing happened.
We relayed some typical responses to the initiative: “just talk and paper”, “bread and circuses for the people”, “just another sign of top management hypocrisy”. The senior managers listened. When it became time for them to respond, they suddenly changed their talk. They said that they had realised that the change project hadn’t worked, but they were not really responsible. They had only got involved fairly late. The CEO and CTO owned the project. They blamed others for the misfortunes.
It quickly turned out that these managers were not interested in more detailed feedback. They didn’t want to learn why the initiative had not worked. They just wanted the programme to be forgotten about as quickly as possible.
Some time later, one of us described this case to a group of managers during an executive development programme. Most seemed to recognise the process and outcome. One of the managers on the course responded: “It ends like this every bloody time.”
Meet ‘negative capability’: it could save you
Perhaps instead of encouraging only optimism, organisations should try to build up a virtue that the poet John Keats defined nearly 200 years ago — negative capability. Writing to his brother, Keats described negative capability as the ability to be in “uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason”.
Over the following two centuries people have seized upon this phrase to describe something that is often lacking in our knowledge-Â and positivity-obsessed culture: the ability to face up to uncertainty, paradoxes and ambiguities.
NegativeÂ capability involves “the ability to tolerate anxiety and fear, to stay in the place of uncertainty”, and so to allow for “the emergence of new thoughts or perceptions”.
For us, negative capabilities are the ability to think critically — the ability and willingness to ask questions and to be reflective. This means querying the assumptions that we make, asking for and being prepared to give justifications, and considering the outcomes and broader meaning of what we do. Doing this requires mature thinking — something that is sorely lacking in most of our organisations as well as society at large.
Fostering and exercising negative capabilities may be tough. Demands for order, discipline, consensus and optimism often make it hard to ask questions. Critical thinking takes time and effort. It creates uncertainty and often it upsets people. Ongoing inquiry and reflection might be a virtue in the university seminar room, but it can easily turn into a dangerous vice in the boardroom.
Having said this, we think that negative capabilities are an absolutely essential part of any thriving organisation. It is this capability that can stop organisations becoming ossified into outdated or fashionable mindsets.
It is also this capability which can help firms avoid the kind of corporate bullshit that increasingly clogs up so many organisations. But perhaps most importantly, it is these negative capabilities that can enable an organisation to create new and more thoughtful lines of action.
Such critical thinking is a practice that most people can — and sometimes do — engage in. We engage in critical thinking when we ask some fairly simple questions — both of ourself and of others. Answering each of these next three questions is likely to flush out many of the real issues that have been lurking in the background.
First, observe: what is going on here?
Second, interpret: what do others think is going on here?
And finally, question: what the hell do we think is going on here?
This is an edited extract from The Stupidity Paradox: The Power and Pitfalls of Functional Stupidity at Work by Mats Alvesson and AndrÃ©Â Spicer. Profile Books, published in Australia by Allen & Unwin, $24.99.